The Online Course Tsunami (4)

The one issue I’ve not taken up yet in this series of posts on the sudden enthusiasm of higher education leaders for online education is the matter of teaching. Before I go any further, I have to offer the following disclaimer. I have not, nor do I intend to teach a purely online course. I have been teaching what are often called “hybrid” courses since the late 1990s, when such things were much more difficult than they are today, so it’s not as if I know nothing about the topic of this post. But it seemed useful to point out that I have never taught a course where the students never meet one another in the analog world.

I say that I will not be teaching such a course for a simple reason. I like meeting my students in the analog world. I’m more than happy to interact with people in the digital world. I’ve been writing this blog since 2005 after all. But I just like knowing my students, being in the classroom with them, laughing with them, watching their faces change either with consternation or sudden insight. Were we to interact only online, I would miss all of that and so I choose to not teach that way.

Which is not to say that I think history courses cannot be taught successfully online. Many years ago (January 2001, in fact), I was on a panel at the AHA with my now colleague Paula Petrik and Skip Knox of Boise State University (Stan Katz was the discussant). Skip gave a paper that day about his fully online Western Civilization course and in his presentation said that he felt that the online version of the class was so much more intellectually stimulating than the face to face course. Most of us in the room were, I think, a bit skeptical, until Skip explained all of his reasons for that claim. Since then, I’ve been much more happy to let 1,000 flowers bloom.

However, as Mark Edmundson points out in a recent Op-Ed in the Times, “The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms.” Unlike Edmundson, I don’t believe that online teaching has to conform to a one size fits all model. Unless, of course, we are talking about MOOCs or video monologues like those available through shops like the Khan Academy. [For a critique of the Khan project, see this piece in the Washington Post.] These sorts of one-way content flows are not, to my mind, teaching. They are content delivery and so are no more “teaching” than is a movie or a book.

What then should we be doing at this moment when our trustees, presidents, and provosts seem to have drunk the online education Kool-Aid?

Given my earlier comments in this series, I think it’s pretty obvious what I think we should not be doing, and that is jumping on the Coursera/Udacity bandwagon. Until someone can show me real assessment data that indicate that the quality of learning taking place through these platforms is equivalent to what happens in the face to face classroom, I’m going to argue against these sorts of massive courses. They are, until proven otherwise, hype. And, as I argue below, the teaching methodologies they promote are wildly out of sync with the reality of our students’ uses of digital media.

The other thing I think we should not be doing is designing online or hybrid courses around single delivery platforms such as BlackBoard. As someone recently pointed out on Twitter (I’d quote them, but can’t find the citation), teaching students to use products such as BlackBoard is teaching them to use a product, not to think critically. Further, these erroneously named “learning management systems (LMS)” impose an outdated pedagogy on instructors and therefore on students. Worse, they are designed to port onto the Internet existing models of teaching and learning, not to help instructors and students mine the potential of the digital environment for new ways of thinking about the material in their courses.

Many years ago now, Martin Mull (apparently) said that “writing about music [or maybe he said painting] was like dancing about architecture.” The same could be said about trying to force an existing course into a digital realm that is inherently different from the analog one.

Here’s an example of what I mean: One research study after another demonstrates that when young people use digital media, they use it as much to create content as they do to consume content. Far too many teaching models in the analog world are predicated on push methodologies (professors pushing content at students) and, not surprisingly, the online courses that are taking presidential suites by storm are equally predicated on push methods of teaching.

For the current college-age generation, the digital realm is a creative space. Thus, using digital media to push content at students without giving them the opportunity to create is like dancing about architecture.

Instead of rushing lemming-like toward push platforms like Coursera or the Khan Academy, we should be thinking carefully about how teaching and learning in the digital realm is different. Then, and only then, should we start creating new approaches to teaching and learning. BlackBoard and its ilk won’t help us. MOOCs won’t help us either.

Who then will help us? Our students, that’s who. By involving them in the process of creating something entirely new, something that maximizes the potentialities of digital media as lived by our students (as opposed to cadres of corporate coders), we will have a chance to get it right this time.


6 thoughts on “The Online Course Tsunami (4)

  1. Jon Becker

    “Until someone can show me real assessment data that indicate that the quality of learning taking place through these platforms is equivalent to what happens in the face to face classroom…”

    Doesn’t address the “massive” courses, but…

    BTW, is there any evidence that the quality of learning in large lecture classes is equivalent to smaller, seminar-style courses? If not, why do we keep offering those?

  2. Mills Post author

    Thanks Jon for this comment/question.

    There is no solid evidence to show that large lecture courses work, if learning is the goal of teaching. Sure, students learn something in those classes, but all the data I’ve ever seen — data developed through rigorous investigation as opposed to anecdotal evidence or student end-of-semester surveys — shows exactly the opposite, namely, that far more learning takes place in small classes.

    Why is that? Cognitive scientists have been replicating these results over and over and over since the 1960s…when we sit in a room listening to a lecture, after a maximum of no more than 10 minutes our minds are wandering and by 15 minutes, we are no longer taking in anything. Hard data, not anecdotal evidence, supports these claims. I’ve read studies that demonstrate that this is true even with the absolute best lecturers. The human brain is simply not wired for 50 or 75 minutes of constant concentration.

    There are also plenty of studies to show that the smaller the classroom, the more learning takes place (so long as you aren’t lecturing at your six students!). Interactivity is the key, because in small classrooms lectures don’t work, so we typically default to active learning models.

    Why do we keep teaching this big, even huge, classes? Because they are cost efficient, that’s why.

  3. Dominik Lukes

    I’m a bit puzzled by this. For the past three years, I have been teaching fully online courses, face to face courses and mostly online courses with a brief camp-like component. In all that time, I have sent about a dozen emails to students. Most of the communication was done on forums and through brief messaging exchanges. I’ve also put webinars into the mix which were very popular. I recorded series of 20-minute lectures (screencasts with powerpoint) that the students found very useful. I did enjoy the ‘Induction Schools’ we ran but I don’t think they did that much for learning or for fostering a sense of community among the students (when compared to courses that were fully online or fully attendance).

    I do like running seminars and giving presentations as well as attending the same. Just to see what it’s like I’m taking a Coursera course on SciFi and Fantasy literature and it is excellent. Exactly the right mix of lecture, activity and interaction (I could do more if I had the time). I particularly like their approach to peer assessment. Having taken and taught on courses on Czech literature, I have no doubt that the participants will get as rigorous an exposure to the genre as if they attended a large English lit course at a University. In fact, probably much much more. I have also read exam essays from courses that I and others taught and all they demonstrate is that not all that much learning goes on in face to face situations. Teachers are too easily seduced into thinking that interacting with a few active students means interactions with the whole group. In my experience, people saying things like “it’s so much easier if you can see their faces” are completely unreliable judges of what goes on in their students’ minds. I’ve been doing some teacher training on using computers in the classroom and the common question is, what if they’ll all go check their Facebook. My answer is that that’s no worse than the age-old technology of the Window or the even older daydream.

    I agree that there online lectures are no more learning than is a movie or a book but most importantly, they are NO less. But in some ways they can more. They force a small chunked delivery that books or traditional lectures cannot do. As someone who almost flunked math, I went to watch a few Sal Khan videos and they actually made things clear for me that reading books had not. They are not the complete education, but neither are schools.

    But I’d also like to make a political point. I’ve been searching in vain for an educational reform aimed at content or pedagogy that made a transformation of the education system in accordance with its goals. And I could not find one. But reforms aimed at widening access are typically more successful (the GI Bill) if only because they are easier to measure. So I think large, cost effective courses are, in fact, potentially a very good thing. With the caveat, of course, that the knowledge education provides is a relatively small part of its power. Signalling is a big part but access to resource networks is probably the greatest. So I do think MOOCs need an offline component but this could be well served by camps and summer schools. In fact, these might be more effective at promoting inclusion because they would moderate the creation of exclusionary ingroups.

    So, I think, in the long-term, the vision should not be flipping the classroom but flipping the school year. Have most of it online in MOOC like settings intermixed with weekends away and a long summer learning camp. It works pretty well for distance education but with the new technologies, it could be harnessed much more successfully.

    Sorry, this got a bit too long. But there’s more. I’ve been keeping track of my reactions to the MOOC backlash on:

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  6. Frank Hardy

    I could argue ad-infinitum about the psycho-social aspects that warrant online education. From the distractive college coed that crosses her legs in class to the minority student whose parents’ are unable to finance new plumbing for a shower, these distractions hinder education to even the most dedicated student. However, there is one basic function that is completely lacking in the argument. The premise is that professors do provide individual contact with students in the classroom setting.

    History has shown (and I personally experienced) that university professors rarely provide such services for their students. They prefer to deal with advanced students and not those 50-100 freshmen and sophomores that are mere “bodies” and a “nuisance” to their true objectives. Required by the academic hierarchy these professors (the vast majority) lecture and rarely teach ABC101 (that is performed my TAs).

    The argument is ground in routine and hundreds of years of tradition unaffected by progress.

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